Why America Cannot Ignore Soft Power

By Shuja, Sharif | Contemporary Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Why America Cannot Ignore Soft Power


Shuja, Sharif, Contemporary Review


AS the world's sole superpower with almost unrivalled economic and military dominance, the United States must make critical choices about the forms of power it employs to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Many foreign policy experts explain why America urgently needs a new and coherent foreign policy and what its foreign policy goals should be in the current world of globalisation. The United States considers itself both the source and the guarantor of democratic institutions around the globe, increasingly setting itself up as the judge of the fairness of foreign elections and applying economic sanctions or other pressures if its criteria are not met.

This, according to Henry Kissinger, has 'produced a paradox. On the one hand, the United States is sufficiently powerful to be able to insist on its view and to carry the day often enough to evoke charges of American hegemony'. [1] At the same time, he continued, 'American proscriptions for the rest of the world often reflect either domestic pressures or a reiteration of maxims drawn from the experience of the Cold War'. [2] He further added, 'the result is that the country's pre-eminence is coupled with the serious potential of becoming irrelevant to many of the currents affecting and ultimately transforming the global order. The international scene exhibits a strange mixture of respect for--and submission to--America's power, accompanied by occasional exasperation with its prescriptions and confusion as to its long-term purpose'. [3]

This criticism and observation is all too familiar. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor in the late 1970s, once remarked: 'We get damned if we do nothing and we get damned if we do something'. [4] This point was well illustrated in February when a mob in Belgrade attacked foreign embassies because their countries had supported Kosovo's Declaration of Independence from Serbia. Several embassies were attacked but only the US one was gutted by fire. Zbigniew Brzezinski is now advising Barack Obama.

For much of the past two decades, the United States has been relatively successful at imposing neo-liberal reforms on oil-rich nations of the South in order to open up their economies and resources to multinational energy companies. In countries where neo-liberal reforms were not possible, or proved insufficient, such as in Iraq, US military intervention occurred in conjunction with economic intervention. Under President George W. Bush, the historic links between US energy policy and US foreign policy became even more pronounced, and it should be noted that the United States has been steadily expanding its control of overseas territories since the turn of the twentieth century, though most Americans do not think of their government as an 'empire'. Now, with over 700 military bases worldwide, the US holds sway over an area that dwarfs the great empires of history. Only last month there was a heated debate in Parliament about the use of the US base on Diego Garcia which is on that small British-owned island. British officials admitted that the US had used the base in at least two cases for 'rendition' flights carrying terrorist suspects.

The leading American foreign policy expert, Dr Ivan Eland, in his book The Empire Has No Clothes: US Foreign Policy Exposed (The Independent Institute, 2006) delivers a penetrating argument to liberals, conservatives and all Americans, exposing the imperial nature of interventionist US policy and advocating a return to the Founding Fathers' vision of military restraint overseas.

Because of its enormous hard power capabilities, US policy-makers have been conscious of the fact that the United States potentially can, if it chooses, significantly influence its external environment. And possession of this power often has given rise to the desire to use it. [5]

Garry Leach, the editor of Columbia Journal, observes:

  The Bush Administration's unilateralist and militaristic foreign
  policy has made evident the cracks in the new world order. … 

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